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County Library Systems Reflect Free Press, Citizen Participation

To most Americans, the governments in their towns and regional areas called counties are the governments they interact with the most. And alongside these local governments are groups of citizens who work on their own to make life better.

In this segment of a multi-part series, VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at how the government of Montgomery County in the eastern U.S. state of Maryland provides residents with a system of free libraries that citizens have an active voice in running.

Thousands and thousands of books, videos, and compact discs -- with free access! It is a window on the world, a place of learning, and a welcoming place. It is the public library.

B. Parker Hamilton, the director of Montgomery County Public Libraries, said at the opening of the latest library, "It is the day that we will open the doors of this wonderful building and say 'Come in! We're open for business! And we're glad you are here’."

Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., has opened its new, $26 million public library in its largest city, Rockville. The showplace facility is, as then-County Executive Douglas Duncan remarked at the dedication ceremony, a place where every resident regardless of income or other status can find information and tools to better themselves.

"We have never wavered in our commitment to putting education and learning -- lifelong learning – first,” said Duncan. “You see it in our nationally recognized public school system, [in] our institutions of higher learning, and our public library system. We continue that tradition today with the opening of this new library."

Montgomery County has 21 neighborhood libraries for its nearly one million residents. More than half of those residents have a library card that they can use to check out materials.

As one patron notes, the library system's vast book, periodical, and recording collections – totaling nearly three million items – are in many languages besides English. "I see when I come here a lot of different ethnic people, internationals coming here and reading in their own language. I know they have, for instance, Chinese newspapers here, Korean newspapers, and Japanese, and so forth. [And, they also have] Hispanic – Spanish – newspapers. Not only that, they have periodicals and they have some books in different languages as well."

And what might not be on hand in the library can be accessed through the Internet at many workstations throughout the system.

The new facility in Rockville incorporates the latest technologies such as touch-screens for checking out books and other materials. There is even wireless Internet access for people's laptop computers.

A visiting student says these features, and the user-friendly design of the library, have made it a most inviting place for study and more. "I just love the atmosphere in this place. That's the reason I am down here. I could do this work anywhere, but I like the atmosphere [here at the library].

Building the new Rockville facility took more than money. It also took, as U.S. Congressman Chris Van Hollen notes, the determination of Montgomery County residents to make it a reality.

"If it hadn't been for what we call the 'grass roots' [citizen organizing], the people at the local level, the citizens, taking it upon themselves to pressure their elected officials, to cajole their elected officials, this would not be here today. So this is really a collaboration, this is democracy working at its best, at the local level," said the congressman.

And residents are also actively involved with Montgomery County's libraries through the Citizens Advisory Board. Its chairperson, Lois Neuman, says this system helps to ensure that the public's needs are met. "The Citizens Advisory Board, a group of twelve people appointed by our county government, works with the citizens of the community to make recommendations about what books to purchase for citizen use."

The contents of Montgomery County's libraries reflect the American principle of a free press. Some of the books and other materials in the library hold views that are different, even counter to, the views held by the government. And the same holds true for public libraries across the United States.

Beyond the freedom that libraries hold and represent, they are also one of the best places to be on a gray, rainy day or a chilly winter night.